Political analysts are paying close attention to fluctuations in the popularity of the U.S. presidential candidates in the wake of last week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, and this week’s convention of the Republican Party in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Some observers expect the events to yield an increase in the popularity of both nominees, Republican candidate John McCain, and his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. Professor of Political Science at Duke University John Aldrich told Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter, Darren Taylor these boosts often don’t last very long, but can be a “useful guide” as to what to expect in the near future.
American political commentators call it the “bounce” or “bump,” and it usually happens after the two major parties hold their national conventions. Simply put, they say, it’s a short-term surge in popularity ratings for candidates following the glitz and glamour of the gatherings they hold to consolidate ahead of a presidential election.
Candidates usually gain between five and eight points in popular opinion polls immediately after the conventions, but these increases usually taper off fairly rapidly as “normal” campaigning resumes ahead of the polls.
U.S. political scientist John Aldrich says the reasons behind the ‘bounce’ phenomenon aren’t difficult to understand.
“One of them is that the party has just had an entire week, basically alone on television and other media, to make its case before the public. And second, and very closely related of course, is that the nominee…is able to make his case to the public for more or less the first time when everybody’s paying attention and saying, ‘Okay, now it’s getting serious; let’s pay attention to who these two (candidates) are going to be.”
Aldrich is professor of political science at Duke University, a former co-editor of the American Journal of Political Science and the winner of multiple awards for his writing, which includes several books on U.S. elections.
He says “probably the most famous example” of the “bounce” experience occurred in 1988, and concerned former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
“He got a bounce after his nomination (at the convention but) it went away and George H.W. Bush was able to win the election.”
After the Democratic convention in 1988, Dukakis was about 17 points ahead of the Republican George H.W. Bush. But the Bush campaign then attacked him, accusing him of being weak with regard to fighting crime, and Dukakis’s lead had faded by the time the Republicans held their convention. The event provided Bush with a significant “bounce” and, unlike Dukakis, the Bush campaign was able to sustain its momentum going into the polls.
In 1980, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan emerged from his party’s national convention with a big lead of 16 percentage points over the Democrats’ Jimmy Carter, but this “bounce” in Reagan’s popularity quickly disappeared after the Democratic convention, which followed. Nevertheless, Reagan still went on to win the 1980 election by a large margin. Four years later, the Republican convention helped “bump” Reagan’s popularity up by as much as 25 points, and he held the advantage over Democratic candidate Walter Mondale throughout the rest of the campaign.
Aldrich also refers to a more recent example of the “bounce” phenomenon, in 1992, the year in which the Democrat’s Bill Clinton was first nominated for president.
“He was behind (the Republican’s George H.W. Bush in terms of popularity) and got a substantial boost after the convention, and it set him on course for his successful election bid.”
But Aldrich emphasizes that “most of the time the bounce goes away.” For example, former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s popularity increased after his party’s convention in 2004, but he ended up losing the election to President George W. Bush.
“The magnitude of the convention bump is not a great predictor of an election outcome,” says Aldrich. Still, he maintains that the phenomenon should provide a “useful guide” to what to expect during the election.
He’s convinced that the post-convention boost in popularity provides the candidates with a great opportunity to build upon the surge and to sustain it going into the polls. Aldrich says Bill Clinton in 1992 saw the value in his “bump” and exploited it to become president.
“He and (then-Democratic running mate and later U.S. vice-president) Al Gore embarked on a nationwide bus tour that continued to keep attention focused on their nomination and kept the convention bounce high for a much longer period of time.”
Analysts say Clinton’s strategy after his convention triumph in 1992 still stands in stark contrast to that of Dukakis, who seemed to stop campaigning after the 1988 convention and didn’t capitalize on his subsequent increase in popularity. Dukakis thereby faded from public attention and allowed the Republicans to reclaim the spotlight and win the White House.
But, says Aldrich, time is against Obama reaping reward from his post-convention boost.
“Barack Obama this time won’t have the opportunity to take advantage of that because we’ve turned immediately from the Democratic convention into the Republican convention.”
The gap between the two conventions this year was just three days -- much shorter than in past elections -- and also coincided with the three-day national holiday weekend in observance of Labor Day. This, analysts say, has made it very difficult for pollsters to gauge public opinion to measure the impact that the Democratic convention has had on Obama’s popularity. And the focus then shifted almost immediately to the Republicans, with their national convention in Minneapolis.
The time factor, says Aldrich, has placed the Republicans at an advantage. Following the Democratic Party’s convention in Denver last week, opinion polls revealed no significant increase in Obama’s popularity. They say there’s still little to separate him and Republican candidate John McCain as the election approaches. Analysts also feel that McCain’s announcement of the little-known governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, less than 12 hours after the Democratic showpiece event, slowed news coverage of Obama’s and his party’s impressive performance and dented his prospects of getting a big ‘bounce.’
However, a CNN poll taken after the convention reveals that people who watched the event – the most watched political convention in history – were more likely to vote for Obama. CNN Polling Director Keating Holland told the network, “Sixty-four percent rated Obama’s acceptance speech as excellent or good, giving it significantly higher marks than any other recent acceptance speech. The Democratic Party’s favorable ratings went up, and the (Republican Party’s) favorable ratings went down. Historically speaking, the convention was better than some and worse than others in the public’s mind - not a home run, but a hit nonetheless.”
Aldrich maintains that the Democrats remain in a better position this year to try to boost Obama’s popularity.
“This time, they (the Democrats) have the money and aren’t bound by the financial rules (governing elections) because they’re self-financing their campaign. They have the (means) to spend substantial amounts of money to try to capitalize on their bounce.”